The Washerwoman’s Genes

June 15, 2006

A Universal Craft

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:05 am

I used to think that I was most grateful for air conditioning: Northern-European-descended me did not fare well in high heat and humidity. But after reading Malcolmson’s English Laundresses, I know now that it’s the automatic washer and dryer that I appreciate the most.

The sheer physical labor of cleaning clothes has been a tortuous burden for women—and yes, it has mostly been women—over the centuries.

A voice from the nineteenth century describes it:

You had to be as strong as a man to lift the great wooden wash tubs, allus left full o’ suds, to keep ’em binged [soaked], even without the weight o’ the wet clothes; and then you had to lift the great iron pot, full of water, on and off the pot hook over a hot turf fire, and drag the wet washing in a clothes basket to the line down the garden, and put it in and out again, perhaps four or fives times if it were a wet day. (Sybil Marshall, 244-45, quoted in Malcolmson, 26)

And doing laundry was a marathon: it took days from start to finish, and the while the work area, often just the kitchen, in a small house, the whole living space, was a soggy water-slogged forest of laundry hanging in various stages of washing, rinsing, or drying.

In a professional laundry of the time, Malcolmson reports, the process involved “sorting, marking, soaking, washing, mangling, blueing, and starching,” with periods of drying in between, and then “ironing, airing, folding, packing, and . . . delivery” (26).

In some households, the only laundry sent out regularly were the whites, made of linen and cotton. The most delicate, personal items were often kept in the home for household servants to wash, or sent to a laundress who specialized in such. But a household laundry might contain garments of linen, cotton, flannel, wool and silk, fabrics which required a variety of different treatments, as well as work clothes made of sack (a rough linen), called the “buckwash,” which were beaten harshly to remove sweat, soil, grease, mortar, clay, and whatever else filthy the clothes might have picked up.

Badly soiled items were soaked, overnight if possible or during the first washing stages of other laundry. Soaking and scrubbing were also prescribed for stains. Problem strains required the application of particular products: lard, acid from foods such as rhubarb, petroleum products like kerosene, paraffin, or gasoline, or soap, ammonia, or lye.

Once free of marks that would be set by hot water, it was time for boiling. Early tubs were wooden; galvanized metal came into use only later in the nineteenth century.

For actual washing, shavings or chunks of hard soap, yellow or brown, were dissolved in boiling water and then poured into the tub. By the nineteenth century, according to Malcolmson, all but the most rural people bought soap instead of making it.

Creating sufficient hot water was a challenge in itself. For that purpose homes had a twenty-gallon copper tub permanently set into a brick frame with a fire below—sort of a barbeque pit for water. In this structure, usually referred to as “the copper,” a fire was contained, and there was less likelihood of soot or ash migrating from the heat source to the clothes. Still, the poorest washerwomen would have had to boil water in any and every pot they owned, further disrupting their households.

The hot water was put in the washing tub, where clothes were beat with a “dolly” or “peggy”—a tool like a several-legged stool on a stick or, sometimes, a metal plunger. Or, clothes were scrubbed, kneaded, or squeezed for a gentler wash. (Malcolmson doesn’t ever mention the washboard, which I believe was fairly common in the US. Also, the photo of an English laundress elsewhere on this site shows her working with a washboard.) “Dollying” tended to rough up fabrics and eventually was used only for work clothes, blankets, and such.

After this stage of scrub-washing, clothes were rinsed, wrung out, and put in the copper for actual boiling. Soap, borax, or other whitener was added. Then came the rinsing: done at least twice to get out the soap which could dinge the fabric. Bluing might be added to final rinse, and men’s shirts and other items might be dipped in starch. “Between soaking and hanging to dry, the wet laundry was lifted between containers and wrung out, on average, no less than six times” (32.)

Technology helped the washerwoman only at the end of the process: in the 1800s, the wringer or mangle was invented. Originally this device involved a roller which was pressed on by a box full of heavy stones. Then the “compact” wringer of two rollers that squeezed out water or smoothed dry clothing came along, a major labor saver that was adopted quickly.

After wringing or “mangling,” the clothes had to be hung to dry. Outdoors was ideal, but city soot was prohibitive, and clothes were dried on clothes horses or lines placed wherever they fit inside. Malcolmson quotes Flora Thompson: “No one who has not experienced it can imagine the misery of living with a firmament of drying clothes on lines overhead” (Thompson 472, quoted Malcomson 33).

Then the ironing began. The mangle could smooth flat items, but clothes had to be ironed, a major trick in an unelectrified age. “An ironer needed to have the ability to gauge the correct temperature for pressing a particular fabric, the skill to avoid scorching the garment, the attentiveness to avoid soiling the clothes with soot or starch residue and the strength to polish garments to the required gloss” (33).

Irons had to stand upright near a fire or lie on a stovetop for reheating. An alternative, the box iron, was hollow for the insertion of a hot poker, and was therefore cleaner but also less hot than a flat iron. Ironing could get quite involved: ruffles and such were done with specially shaped irons, there were special boards for shirt fronts, and so on.

With mechanization, laundry work split into two domains: industrial laundries handle restaurant and hotel linen, chains of dry cleaners take in shirts, and laundromats provide facilities for individuals. But mechanization has largely allowed personal laundry to once again be done in the home. As Malcolmson notes, this is an exception to the general rule in which mechanization has removed once-domestic tasks forever from the household: soap-making, beer-brewing, bread-baking, and the sewing of clothing have all become irreparably industrialized. “To the extent that [they] are found in the household today, they are as atavistic, often romanticized recreational activities” (157).

“Doing the laundry is an ancient and universal craft” (162).


Malcolmson, Patricia E. English Laundresses: A Social history, 1850-1930. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Marshall, Sybil. Fenland Chronicle: Recollections of William Henry and Kate Mary Edwards Collected and Edited by Their Daughter (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1967). 244-45.

Thompson, Flora Lark Rise to Candleford, London: Reprint Society, 1948. 471.


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